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Experts speak out on the use of sanctions.

More prisons and longer sentences will not solve America's crime problem. Panelists at ACA's Closing Plenary Session Aug. 5 had differing views on a number of corrections issues, but this was one point on which they all agreed.

What are the solutions to crime? Panelists named a number of possibilities, including better use of alternatives to incarceration, early intervention for delinquent youths, improved infrastructure in our nation's cities, and more support for social programs such as early childhood education and unemployment services.

Moderated by ACA Executive Director James A. Gondles, Jr., the session featured four of corrections' leading professionals: Betty K. Adams, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Youth Development; James J. Lawrence, president of the International Association of Residential and Community Alternatives and executive director of Oriana House in Akron, Ohio; Orville B. Pung, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections; and Samuel F. Saxton, director of the Prince George's County Department of Corrections in Maryland.

The session, titled "The Great Debate: Corrections Practitioners Respond," featured an informal discussion of the panelists' views on the Congress General Session Debate (see page 56). In general, all panelists agreed with Law Professor Michael Tonry's assertion during the debate that America currently relies too heavily on incarceration as a solution to its social problems and that the general public may be ready to explore the use of alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders.

When asked who he thought won the general session debate, Lawrence responded, "community corrections."

"The general community is concerned with having substantial prison space for locking up violent offenders," he said. "I think there is also substantial support for community corrections alternatives for nonviolent offenders."

But Pung cautioned that changing current sentencing practices would not be easy. "We throw away time in this country like no other country I know of," he said. "It's going to take some people with some courage to stand up and say, |We put people away for too long in this country,' and there are very few politicians willing to do that."

Still, Pung said, the economics of incarcerating offenders vs. providing them with alternative programs will eventually lead to more support for alternatives, turning what are generally considered liberal policies into ones conservatives also will embrace. "The message is coming through, raising some questions: Who is getting punished? Is the public really getting back what they think they're getting?" Pung said. "The issue of making better use of resources may, in the end, come from the conservative side."

Saxton, however, stressed that sentencing practices should be based on more than just financial considerations. "I don't know if this is just a spending issue," he said. "I think it's a moral issue, a values issue."

Adams stressed the need for corrections to develop a range of programs and services for offenders. Part of the blame for ineffective sentencing practices of the past, she said, lies with corrections' failure to develop viable options.

"We need a balance," she said. "Where we have fallen short is in providing an effective continuum. We have not had the luxury of placing individuals in the proper programs."

Panelists also stressed the need for involving community leaders and the general public in corrections-related decisions. Adams charged that many times corrections professionals "just give lip-service to community involvement."

"What we really want is unquestioned support," she said. "But we have to start allowing the community into the fold. We can't hold ourselves off as the experts without taking in their input." In addition to discussing the General Session Debate, panelists entertained questions submitted from the audience. In response to a question regarding whether violent offenders should be placed in community programs toward the end of their sentences, panelists said they feel this is a good way to ease offenders back into society.

"It's important to be able to ease them into their new life and to help them make decisions," Adams said. "It's much like raising a teenager--they have to try their wings."

Audience members also raised questions on issues such as the importance of religious programming in prisons, international corrections policies and victim restoration programs.
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Title Annotation:American Correctional Association's 123rd Congress of Correction
Author:Acorn, Linda R.
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Oct 1, 1993
Words:685
Previous Article:Tonry, Fein debate sentencing policy.
Next Article:ACA honors Cass Award winners.
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